Category Archives: Spiritual Exercises

Exercise 54: Labeling Thoughts

Background:  Once, finding information was hard.  Those of us who remember life before the internet know that once we had to research with card catalogs and microfiche readers.  At that time, the challenge was to locate anything at all on certain topics.

Today, our problem is quite the opposite.  The internet overloads us.  It is hard to imagine a topic which would not turn over results.  The issue, of course, is knowing which information is relevant and reliable.  It is no longer about finding information.  It is about filtering the excess so that we can get to what is useful.

Our brains are a lot like an internet search.  They can provide an overabundance of information.  Some of it is critical.  Other information?  Useless and unreliable.  While our brain shares with us intuitions about this person we just met or  pleasing sensory data which might help us to enjoy the moment it is also reporting our fears about tomorrow, and regrets about yesterday.  It might be replaying a script that no long applies.

This is one of the reason that contemplation is so important.  Many spiritual practices seek to turn down the volume of the brains constant broadcasts so that we can discern where the important information is.  Today’s spiritual practice calls on us to label the thinking that is going on.

It is important to remember that our brain’s job is to think.  It is unlikely we will achieve a goal of thoughtlessness.  This would be a dubious goal anyway.  My goal is to turn down the volume, not to turn it off.  When we day dream, we can return ourselves to this practice gently, with a sense of gratitude that we were able to bring ourselves back.

The Practice

  1.  Release your expectations and sense of obligations with your exhale.
  2. Inhale through the nose.
  3. Exhale through the mouth.
  4. Seek a time of mental quiet.
  5. When a thought arises, simply label it “thinking.”
  6. return to your breath.
  7. Continue this breathing, labeling of thoughts, and returning to the mental quiet for the time you have set aside for your practice this morning.

 

 

 

Exercise 53: You, who are closer than our breath, speak to us from the silence

Background:  My wonderful spiritual community is praying through the psalms, one a day.  The Pastor recommended ‘Psalms for Praying’ by Nan C. Merrill.  I had planned on ignoring her.  I felt like I could navigate through the difficult language that pops up in many of the psalms as they are traditionally translated.  Then she gave me the book, and it felt ungrateful not to read them there.  And I was glad I did.

As we read psalm 45, I approached it in a lectio-kind of mind set, looking for some words that spoke to me.  A few stanzas in, I came to this: “You, who are closer than our breath/  speak to us from the silence.”  As you can see below, I took a few minor liberties with the phrasing.

It felt right to build in increasing empty spaces in this exercise.  A precise count is not particularly important.  Therefore, one approach to “five deep breaths” Is to simply accept that 4 or 6 will also do.  The alternative is to use the thumb and finger tips to help keep track: On the first breath, touch thumb of both hands to pointer finger of both hands.  On the second breath, thumb to middle finger.  On the third thumb to ring finger.  On the fourth thumb to pinky.

The Exercise

  1.  Release your worries and expectations with a deep exhale.
  2. Inhale.
  3. Take two more deep, cleansing breaths.
  4. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  5. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  6. Inhale.  Exhale.
  7. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  8. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  9. Take two deep breath.
  10. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  11. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  12. Take three deep breaths.
  13. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  14. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  15. Take four deep breaths.
  16. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  17. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  18. Spend a time in wordless communion.  Try to release all of the words.
  19. When you feel that you have begun to drift off, or are ready to resume the practice,  With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  20. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  21. Take four deep breaths.
  22. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  23. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  24. Take three deep breaths.
  25. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  26. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  27. Take two deep breaths.
  28. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  29. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  30. Take one deep breath.
  31. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  32. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.

Know that you can return to these phrases through out your day.

 

 

Exercise 52: Metta (Loving-Kindness Meditation)

Background

This is not the first description of a Loving-Kindness meditation here at The Faith-ing Project.  It was observed that the previous description though omitted a traditional and important element of the practice.

An important aspect of the traditional loving-kindness meditation is challenge to love people who we might have difficulties with.  The description below includes this element.

The English translations of the precise sentences to be used vary somewhat.  There is also some variance on the precise order and groups that those key sentences are applied to.  In particular, different practices will focus on the act of receiving love in different ways and at different times.  One aspect of this is where to wish ourselves those several statements.

It seems that one important element of this timing is precisely how we feel about ourselves.  Since the practice begins with the easy and works up toward the difficult, loving the self ought to be the very first thing some people do, and the final step for others.

Before you begin this practice, it is wise to have given a little bit of thought to who you will bring to mind for each of the following categories:

  • Someone whom you love very much.  They might be alive or dead.  It could be someone you see frequently or see rarely.  Mentors, parents, children, best friends, and significant others fall into this category.
  • Someone whom you feel ambivalent or neutral to.  This could be a casual aquaintance, a coworker, a distant relative, or someone whom you are growing apart from.
  • Someone who actively annoys you, or who you have to work at liking.  As your familiarity with this practice gradually increases, you might gradually attempt people who you more intensely dislike.

After you attempt this practice as written you might wish to change the order, or even research other ways to try this practice.

The Practice

  1.  Sit comfortably.
  2. Take 3 deep breaths: inhalations and exhalations.
  3.  Now bring to mind the person who you love to most.  See them in your mind’s eye wearing an outfit they would be likely to be in.  Hear their voice.  Bring to mind any scents or other sensations you might associate with them.
  4. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be healthy.”  Exhale.
  5. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be happy.”  Exhale.
  6. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be free.”  Exhale.
  7. Inhale.  Exhale.
  8. Bring to mind the person you feel neutral or ambivalent about.  See them as with as many senses as possible.
  9. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be healthy.”  Exhale.
  10. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be happy.”  Exhale.
  11. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be free.”  Exhale.
  12. Inhale.  Exhale.
  13. Now, bring to mind that person you struggle with.  Try and experience them vividly in your mind.  Be an interested observer to any feelings this brings up in you.
  14. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be healthy.”  Exhale.
  15. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be happy.”  Exhale.
  16. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be free.”  Exhale.
  17. Inhale.  Exhale.
  18.  Now, it is time for you.  See yourself in your mind’s eye.  It might be helpful to try and see yourself through the eyes of the person you first focused on.  Or make an attempt at seeing yourself through God’s eyes.
  19. With your next inhale, think or say, “May I be healthy.”  Exhale.
  20. With your next inhale, think or say, “May I be happy.”  Exhale.
  21. With your next inhale, think or say, “May I be free.”  Exhale.
  22. Inhale.  Exhale.

Exercise 51: A Mindful Body Scan

Background: The body scan is a well-loved mindfulness exercise.  This is a practice which invites us to carefully survey the body and to explore how it is feeling.  One of the objectives is to compare how the different body parts feel. Those parts of us that feel relaxed are contrasted with the places we feel tense.   

It’s a powerful thing, to note what feels comfortable.  Just as watching the example of someone performing well is often more helpful than analyzing what is wrong, finding parts of the body which are comfortable allows us to use them as a sort of example in how to bring that comfort elsewhere.

 

On this approach, the soreness is simply noted.  Noticing has a strange kind of power in contemplation.  Sometimes, just the act of noticing is enough to make the situation feel better.  It is a bit like putting a band aid on the “owie” of a small child.

The exercise that is on the next page is written with this simple approach of merely noticing.  After you feel comfortable with this, you might try the following variations and see how they work for you.  These variations bring a more active focus to the places which do not feel comfortable.  

The first variation is to “breathe into” the hurt.   As we inhale, we imagine the breath going straight to the place that is sore.  Envisioning the breath coming to work on the painful place can be very effective.

The second  variation is to turn the attention to relaxing the area.  Here, we will the muscles themselves to relax. Sometimes it is helpful to begin with the surrounding area and work our way inward, toward the center of the discomfort.  

After a particularly good body scan, I become delightfully aware of the ways my body parts are all connected.  I notice the joints, ligaments, and places that connect one part of me to another. I get this sense of being a single, unified body rather than just a collection of parts.   

 

The Exercise

 

  •  Inhale.  
  • Exhale.
  • Inhale again, and turn the attention to the soles of both feet.  Explore them front to back, or left to right. Let yourself become aware of where they are and how they are feeling.
  • Now, draw your attention up through the tops of the feet.  
  • Become aware of the ankles and lower calves.  Continue to be aware of how these body parts are feeling.  
  • In your mind’s eye, see your shins, too.  
  • Become aware of the knees, and the area behind the knees.  Continue to draw the attention up to the thighs.
  • Remembering to continue to breathe deeply, now notice the pelvis, hips, and buttocks.
  • Bring your awareness to your lower back and abdomen.  
  • Draw your attention up, through the rib cage and shoulders.  
  • Inhale.  Exhale.
  •  Wiggle your fingers.  Bring your awareness to each finger and thumb.  Notice where they come to join the hand.
  • Feel your palm and notice the back of your hand.  
  • Continuing to breathe deeply, note your wrist and forearms.
  • Draw your attention to the elbow and upper arm.
  • Note your armpit and the place where your arm joins the body.
  • Inhale.  Exhale.
  • Turn your attention to everything below the neck.  You have become aware of that whole portion of your body.
  • Now, draw your awareness up the neck. 
  • Become aware of the jaw, and slowly draw your attention across your face.  Feel how your nose and ear sit in your skull. Become mindful of how your eyes and sinuses feel.
  •  Notice the back of your head, and slowly draw your awareness up through the very top of the scalp.
  •  Now, relax for a few minutes, enjoying the connection with your body.

 

 

Exercise 50: A Return to the Mantra

Background: These last few practices have been rooted in the experience that changes in my breath are not caused by “me” (whatever it is that I am!)  Rather, it is the universe breathing in me.

Click here and here and here to see these practices or to read more background into this experience.

There are some who believe that there is something sacred in the precise words chosen for the mantra.  This has not been my experience.  Part of the vision of The Faith-ing Project is that you might fall in love with a certain practice and then go to the source and context of that practice, though.  If the idea that there is something sacred inherent to the sounds chosen for a mantra resonates with you, I wish you peace as you explore that possibility.

The value I see in a Mantra is in the constant repetition of a word and phrase.  One thing that happens here is that the words come to individually seem suspect.  Do they mean anything at all?  After saying them over and over again, it feels as though they individually have no meaning.  And yet, the meaning is still there.  It seems to become bigger than the individual words.  This can feel like a metaphor for the nature of the universe itself, this wearing down of the boundaries between all things.

The Practice.

  1.  Find a comfortable position.  If you can, sit straight.  Place your palms upward, in a receptive gesture.
  2. Breathe deeply three times.
  3. With the next exhale, begin your mantra.  Say it repeatedly.
  4. With the inhale, continue thinking the mantra.
  5. Fall into a rhythm if you can.  Chanting can be very powerful.
  6. When you are ready, open yourself to the possibility that this breath is not your breath.  It is the universe breathing in you.  It is the universe breathing you.
  7. Continue this for a while, chanting your mantra, holding the possibility that the universe is breathing within you.
  8. When you are ready, try on the possibility that the mantra is not your mantra.  It is not you saying it.  The mantra is the universe speaking its truth in you.
  9.  Maintain this for a while: chant the mantra.  The words and the breath are not you or yours.  You are the universe’s instrument.
  10. When you are ready, on the inhale, hear the mantra still being said.  This is a goal for mantra-based meditation.  To see the speaking of the words as just taking up a mantra that is already in the air.
  11. Release the mantra and sit in a time of worldess union.

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Exercise 49: Observing the Breath

Background

If you wanted to divide up all the spiritual exercises, all the contemplations, all the ways of approaching of mindfulness that have ever been, you could find one convenient dividing line around what they do with the breath.  

Many practices begin by asking us to take charge of the breath. Generally speaking, these practices encourage us to slow down our breathing.  There are lots of reasons that this is a good idea.

As discussed above, it may not be the most accurate picture of the way things work though.

The other category of practices asks us to simply observe the breath.  

The act of simply tuning into the breath can be so much more difficult than it sounds.  It is easy to overthink the direction, “Tune into your breath without changing it.” Generally speaking, holding this instruction to tightly will lead to struggles.  In trying to be too literal we tend to unleash a series of questions and doubts.

As with so many things, entering these exercises in a light-hearted manner is wise.  If we accept that we will not be perfect at it, we will be able to observe our breath much more effectively.

Exercise 17: Observing the breath

 

  1. Create a safe, quiet space.
  2. Sit in a comfortable, upright manner if you are able.
  3. Tune in to your breath.  Do your best to accept it without changing it.
  4. Note whether you are using the mouth, nose, or both.
  5. Become aware of specifically where you feel the breath entering the nose or mouth.  How does it feel there? What is the temperature?
  6. Note the temperature as it comes in.  
  7. Extend this awareness of the feeling and temperature as the breath leaves you.
  8. Where does the breath end in your body?  Does your abdomen move? Your chest?
  9. When you are ready, increasingly bring yourself into this particular breath.  The one you feel right now. This breath, now is the only breath you can ever change.  It is wholly unique among all the breaths you will ever feel. Greet each breath. Find its uniqueness. 
  10.  Welcome the special breaths that follow in the same way.  Sit in this awareness for most of the time you have devoted to your practice today.  
  11. When you are ready, return to your everyday life.  But know that you can welcome each breath throughout your day.

 

 

Exercise 48: More Breathing Toward Oneness

Background: You might find this to be most effective after exercise 47.  In some ways, it is a follow-up to that exercise.

Our every day assumption is that our consciousness (ego, mind) is in control of things like our breathing.  The main evidence for this assumption is rooted in the idea that when I think “I am going to breathe slowly now.”  I do, in fact, start to breathe slowly.

However, it is worth noticing a few things about this assumption.  The first is that (thankfully) when we stop thinking about our breathing, we continue to breathe.  The second is that if we asked for an account of how we do things like change our breath or move an arm, we couldn’t give much more of an explanation than “well, I think about it, then it happens.”

There are some aspects of neuroscience that are beginning to endorse the idea that our consciousness tells a story about what is going on and our body, rather than causing those changes to take place.  In other words, there are good reasons to suppose that when we begin to breathe slowly, we think “I am going to breathe slowly now.” and assume our thought caused the action, when in fact, the opposite is true.

The Exercise

  1.  Find a relaxed position.  Generally speaking, this will be a seated position with feet flat on the floor and spine as straight as is comfortable.
  2. Notice your breath.  Allow yourself to be aware of it with out seeking to change it.
  3. Feel the inhale: notice where the breath comes in on the nostrils or mouth.  Observe the flow of air down the throat and into the belly.
  4. Feel the exhale.  Notice the difference in the temperature and moisture of the air as it leaves the body.
  5. Continue this for at least three more breaths.  Continue longer if that feels right.
  6. As you continue to observe this process, recall that a story goes that God reached down and breathed into a handfull of Earth.  After that breath, there was Adam.
  7. Observe the exhale.
  8. Continue this for two more breaths: God-in-the-universe is breathing you.
  9. Open your heart and mind to the awareness that other people and animals in your area (perhaps your family in other bedrooms, or the other occupants of the building you are in) are breathing, too; God-in-the-universe is breathing them.
  10. As you complete a second and third breathe with this awareness, continue to observe this breath being breathed in you.
  11. Open your mind and heart to the plants and even microscopic organisms all around you.  Some living things inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.  Others do the reverse.  See the world breathing in all these creatures.
  12. Sit in this flow and connection for as long as you would like.  
  13. Can you widen this network of connections?  Can you make it geographically larger?  Can you expand the nature of the interconnections.
  14. When you are ready, return to your every day world.  Hold on to the connections between the rest of the world that were deepened here.

 

You can help in turning The Faith-ing Project into a fully functioning community.  You can do this in several ways:

  • Share your thoughts, feelings, and criticism below in the comments.
  • email otherjeffcampbell7@gmail.com to share something directly with the Project’s Director, to join our next email campaign, or to ask to be placed on the mailing list.
  • Access exclusive content and help The Faithing Project share spiritual practices with a world in desperate need.  Become a  Patron.
  • follow @faithingproject on twitter.